The sky was exceptionally sublime last night with distant plumes of smoke climbing up into the clouds. The air was smoky and humid. The city seemed exhausted, ready to take a cold shower, drink ice water, and crawl into a bed without a blanket in an air-conditioned room.
But firefighters were racing to multiple scenes, battling on foot, assisted by water dropping copters. There would be little sleep for the defenders of life and property.
The 2017 La Tuna Canyon Fire in the Verdugo Mountains, a punishing event, looked tame from a distance in Pacoima along San Fernando Road. Closer up, panic and urgency: horses, dogs, cats and people evacuated. Others chose to stay home, hose down their roofs and wait it out.
In Sunland, still along San Fernando Road, one could glimpse the hot flames shooting up in the crevices between the jagged hills, orange fire against the dark blue sky.
50 or more years ago people (of means) ate out perhaps once a week.
In Van Nuys, up until the late 1960s, the dining scene reflected the overwhelmingly white make-up of the region. The vast immigration from Central and South America, Africa and Asia that has made present day Los Angeles so varied and so heterogeneous and brought us Malaysian, Taiwanese, Laotian, Mongolian, Thai, Filipino, Vietnamese, Guatemalan, Russian, Indian, Burmese, Persian, and Ethiopian did not exist half a century ago.
What was on the menus back then offered a variety of “German”, “Italian” and “Chinese” cuisines that had as much authenticity as a studio back lot.
Which is not to deride the food. It was offered to customers graciously, copiously and somewhat formally, as people would not dare enter a restaurant without being dressed up, with men in suits and ties, and women in dresses, skirts and high-heels.
At Hoppe’s Old Heidelberg, 13726 Oxnard, men and women who fought in WWII, 15 years earlier, would dine guiltlessly on Schnitzel A La Holstein for $2.75 and enjoy an imported German beer for sixty cents.
Entrees came (free of charge) with soup, salad, potato and vegetable, fresh bread and butter and a dessert. Light eaters might order fruit cocktail for 20 cents and a glass of tomato juice for 15 cents.
Otto’s Pink Pig at 4954 Van Nuys Bl. offered many fine seafood dishes, some of which are seemingly extinct in Los Angeles dining, such as frog legs, mountain trout, abalone steak, filet of sole, and Crab Mornay. All the aforementioned were also offered under $5.
Otto’s had a huge beef menu offering 19 choices. There was a 16 Oz. Culotte Steak, Sirloin Steak, NY Stripper Steak, Porter House Steak, Filet Mignon, Ribeye, Steak Au Poivre, Steak Alla Pizzaiola, Grenadine of Beef Bordelaise, Beef Steak Surprise, Dinner Steak, Steak and Green Peppers, Tournedos of Beef Au Sherry, Tournedos of Beef Morderne, Beef in Brochette, Steak and Eggs “King Size”, Steak and Eggs “Princess Size”, Steak Sandwich, Megowan Steak Sandwich De Luxe. And there were three roasts as well!
At 6801 Van Nuys Blvd. at Van Nuys and Vanowen (think of that lovely location today) stood Nemiroff’s with its blue menu and regal crest.
It seems to have been a Jewish style deli much like Jerry’s, without kosher offerings, but selling such sandwiches as Lox and Cream Cheese on Bagel for $1.25 and Chopped Chicken Liver on Rye for 90 cents.
Every day of the week offered a special, such as Monday’s Beef Tenderloin Tips with Egg Noodles and Garden Fresh Vegetables, described as an “exquisite meal” for $1.95 or Friday’s Filet of San Francisco Bay Red Snapper for observant Catholics. Indeed, Nemiroff’s seems to have delved into many styles with its German Sauerbraten ($1.95) and Irish Corned Beef and Cabbage with boiled potatoes and fresh carrots, horseradish sauce cooked in “Nemiroff’s Kettles for natural flavors” and it also cost $1.95.
There were many more restaurants, too numerous to mention, but places, spoken of today, regarded fondly, chiefly because where you ate when you were young is sacred, and every drop of cottage cheese and chocolate pudding, canned peaches and fish sticks, transports you back to a time when the world possessed freshness, vigor, and possibility.
And all the dreams you had were still in the future, waiting to be fulfilled, and a dream job, a dream car, a dream girl, a dream boy, a dream house, existed not only in the imagination, but for many, across this region, in reality.
In the first third of the 20th Century, Los Angeles developers built many tall apartments in the midst of single-family homes.
One sees, in the older sections of the city, in West Hollywood, Koreatown, and West Adams, the presence of five, six, even ten story apartment houses that pop up, sometimes mid-block, in-between single family properties.
These photographs of buildings, from the USC Digital Archives, are historically valuable, but also aesthetically heartbreaking, for it shows a city where architecture mattered, and humans were housed in civil, respectable, affordable places. Isn’t that the bare minimum expected in a “First World” nation?
There may have been poor people in 1925, but they didn’t live in the tens of thousands under bridges, on park benches, or wander the streets as zombies, covered in dirt, screaming obscenities. Nor would the society back then have allowed mass vagrancy as public policy.
The old buildings were strong and subtle. They wore their classic proportions without irony. They commanded respect quietly. They stood confidently, wore facades in single colors, and were built of solid materials like brick, solid concrete or smooth stucco.
Today, market style makers demand new apartments broken up nervously in clashing colors, painted in clownish and garish hues, most likely to reduce their bulk, preventing probable offense to neighbors prickly over density. They scream fun, but omit horror on the first of each month when rent is due.
But, in fairness to these attention grabbers, at least they have a dialogue with the street, and introduce shops and ground floor activity to the area. They just do it in the Instagram way, by shouting, “look at me man!”
The old buildings always marched right up to the sidewalk. You entered by walking up to an entrance. And this zoning reinforced the urbanity of the neighborhood, because it created chances for pedestrians to interact. Compare that to six lanes of Sepulveda, and parking garage apartments where the only people walking outside are selling something illegal.
Imagine if Van Nuys Boulevard near the Busway had a Langham or Talmage Apartments with hundreds of residents who walked to the bus, or rode their bikes, or ate in restaurants in the neighborhood?
The old civility of courtyard housing, of interior spaces, shielded from the sun, planted with greenery, done with subtlety and grace, that is also how this city used to build.
What is preventing the State of California, the City of Los Angeles, the people of this region, from banding together to amend the harmful zoning laws that prohibit certain types of structures, once commonplace 100 years ago, from being built again?
“A whopping 87 percent of LA’s total housing supply was built prior to 1990, while only 13 percent was built in the last 25 years.
More recently, between 2010 and 2015, we’ve only added approximately 25,000 new units. That number does not include all of 2015 and includes none of 2016, and it will grow by 30 to 50 thousand in the next several years as existing developments finish construction and planned projects get underway. But at best we’re roughly on pace for housing production similar to the ’90s and ’00s, both of which saw historically small amounts of new housing and historically large increases in housing prices. That’s not a boom, that’s the continuation of a decades-long slump.
This slump is reflected in our city’s vacancy rates, which have a direct relationship to home prices and rents. Lower vacancy rates cause prices to go up faster. It’s exactly the same relationship we see with unemployment: When unemployment is low and fewer people are looking for work, labor is scarce and so workers can sell their labor for more money. As a result, job applicants and existing employees gain bargaining power and their average pay increases. Likewise, when housing is scarce, landlords gain bargaining power and rents increase.”
On May 31, 2017 it was announced that homelessness in Los Angeles had increased by 23% in the past year, a figure true to anyone who drives down boulevards packed with old RVs, or passes many bus stop benches hosting overnight guests.
60,000 or more are sleeping outdoors, and many more are arriving daily from cold cities and small towns, around the world, to camp out here. Others fought and suffered in our long running theaters of international conflict, and still more lost their jobs, their health insurance, and their families.
But sixty-four human beings are no longer homeless because they now live at the Crest Apartments on Sherman Way, a glistening, five-story tall tower built by the Skid Row Housing Trust which provides permanent supportive housing for people afflicted with poverty, poor health, disabilities, mental illness or addiction.
Or all of the above.
Yesterday, there was a grand opening at Crest, attended by architect Michael Maltzan, Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, Congressman Tony Cardenas, and District #2 City Councilman Paul Krekorian, CEO Mike Alvidrez of SRHT, and other workers from agencies, private funding groups, banks and the blogosphere.
Little trays of pretty little food were laid out. Smart looking people with downtown clothing and uptown education mingled amongst the residents. The air smelled of refinement called into service for a national emergency.
Two sartorial standouts, a tall man and a tall woman, radiated chicness in oversized collars and skinny, pegged black pants. They said nothing but perused the on-site finishes. I walked up the stairs with them in silence. They must have come here on their way to LACMA.
As the dignitaries spoke, a cold, foggy wind blew across the seats, chilling dieting women and putting men like me into a stupor. Yet, perhaps because we live in chilling times, with an international ignoramus in the White House, the words emanating from the dais seemed charged with eloquence and urgency, rousing us from our jadedness.
“Get active not angry!” thundered Representative Tony Cardenas, the former City Councilman whose previous epoch in Van Nuys made everyone angry and inactive.
Sheila Kuehl told a metaphorical story about three women saving drowning babies in the river. One rescued the babies, one taught them how to swim, the other lady wanted to know who was throwing the babies into the water. Sadly for Sheila, the nearest river was the LA one, so it was hard to imagine it flowing.
A Vietnam Vet, disabled, now living here, spoke of his previously unraveling life that left him without a place to put his “NAM” cap. He had been chosen, like a lucky lottery winner, to move into Crest Apartments.
We were all gathered here to celebrate something that is uncommon in Los Angeles: An exquisite piece of architecture, run by a non-profit, financed by private and public funding, dedicated to the proposition that all humans deserve a chance to live in dignity, cleanliness and even artfulness, while rebuilding their broken lives into something moral, fulfilling and contributory.
Michael Maltzan, the architect, has become the go-to guy for homeless housing perhaps because he quietly designs top-notch, low-budget, stripped-down minimalism.
Here, at the Crest, he contrasted a white facade with some bright colors and brought in light. The breezy, gentle, undulating landscaping includes organic gardens, and flowering trees softening his straight lined, laconic forms.
Maltzan is unlike many of his bedazzling contemporaries in Los Angeles. He is a shy reformer, like Irving Gill, or RM Schindler, an architect who builds without fancy materials, but plays with light, inserting windows and openings to create a rhythm.
Walking down the spare halls of Crest yesterday, there was a penitential severity in its white walls and concrete floors, but then you would turn a corner and stumble upon freedom: a bright, open-air lookout, painted in green or yellow or blue.
From the street, the Crest Apartments is like a sting of pearls left in a dumpster.
Smoky, chemical fumed Sherman Way is up there on the list of the ugliest and most inhuman streets in Los Angeles, a road where civilized life was extinguished long ago, hosting a violent deluge of speeding drivers, fuming trucks, asphalt parking lots, Thai restaurants, mini-malls, baklava outlets, tattoo shops, marijuana clinics, car washes, discount marble, gentleman’s clubs, unlicensed medical clinics and an air of impending menace and blazing desperation.
Yet, this degradation is also where you stumble upon one of the gentlest and best-intentioned small projects erected in contemporary Los Angeles.
Yesterday afternoon, we were gathered at MacLeod Ale to celebrate Quirino’s birthday. We sat along a wooden table in the back, near the bags of hops. People were playing darts. The front door was closed, the air conditioning was on, we ate BBQ tri-tip beef (marinated in MacLeod). And we were discussing Van Nuys over warm and cold beer.
A young guy named Daniel sat across from me. He had worked under Former Councilman (Congressman!) Tony Cardenas and is now in the city planning department. Andreas asked him if he thought Van Nuys might be the new Highland Park.
“Not now, maybe not ever,” Daniel said.
Daniel was versed, in the somnambulistic and arcane zoning laws of Los Angeles, the kind that mandate how much parking is needed and what height a building can be, if additional units of housing can go up if some rents come down. And how many feet away from a school is permissible for a liquor store? And who can put up a 1200 sf granny flat in their backyard (the answer is you).
His generalized, and probably correct assertion is that Highland Park has an active and engaged group of residents and Van Nuys does not. The same is true of more affluent and contentious areas like Studio City or Woodland Hills. In those places, where planters and trees now line the boulevards, bike lanes are carved out, and revitalized shops, apartments, housing are going in. Much of the credit goes to the people who live there.
Van Nuys complains. But it never unites to fight for its betterment. Much easier to bicker on the Next Door app.
Also at our table was white-haired, impassioned, articulate Howard who is on the VNNC. He is smart, accomplished, a lifelong resident of Los Angeles who grew up near Venice and Fairfax and watched the demolition of housing during the construction of the Santa Monica Freeway in the early 1960s. At that time, thousands of old houses, many architecturally notable, were bulldozed.
Howard recalled the dirt berm that extended for fifteen miles after the houses came down. “At night you could hear the rats, there were millions of them, and they ran and scurried and made noise.”
The Santa Monica Freeway was part of the big plan for Los Angeles. As was the Van Nuys Civic Center, Dodger Stadium, Bunker Hill, and the Federal Building in Westwood. In all these cases the results were less than stellar. Walkable, vibrant, historic, human scaled places were obliterated. And what remains today are acres of baked asphalt and mute modernism.
Howard said that the planned redevelopment of Van Nuys Boulevard, to make it a transit hub, to put a light rail down the center, to install bike lanes, to increase the allowable height of apartments, all of these progressive ideas, pushed by everyone from New Urbanists to developers and transit advocates, would be a “disaster for Van Nuys.” Many small businesses would close and the area would turn into something worse than even the hellish condition it currently is in.
So simultaneously, he decried the automobile oriented era of the Santa Monica Freeway and mimicked the impending one of density and pedestrian oriented development.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”- F. Scott Fitzgerald
And yet his views do make sense if you consider that every time big ideas come to Los Angeles, they are somehow, like a good-looking wannabe actor/model from the hinterlands, deflated and defeated by this city.
The daily assassination of youthful idealism is the oldest tradition in our city.
In the built environment there is also something here that abhors a unifying concept of planning and harmony. If a building can be built to stick out and look freaky and out-of-place it is deserving of praise.
In architecture, as in politics and entertainment, the bigger the carnival and the louder the wreck, the more applause, the more profits. That’s what we are aiming to create.
When we do get together under some banner like Mayor Villaraigosa’s “Million Trees” or Mayor Garcetti’s “Great Streets” the gods start to laugh at us. We are best at half-hearted, half-completed projects.
And perhaps that negative is a good thing. One must give Los Angeles credit, not only for attempting to build massive public works, but for making sure that once the great works go up, small indignities, like homeless encampments along the Orange Line Bike Path, will sober up dreamers and urban fantasists.
All the Great Plans are like those coffee-house conferences with laptops, planning to produce and cast and finance something, someday….
On the drawing board now is a new park in Pershing Square.
Two years ago, I went with a group of photographers to shoot the city on a Sunday afternoon and was told I could not put my camera on a tripod. This was in the same park where mattresses were laid out and people sprawled down stairs drunk and asleep.
A public park where public photography is regulated by private security.
What you should be able to do in public you cannot, and what you should NOT do, is allowable.
And then there is MacLeod Ale, a private venture, started by two people over 50, using family money and retirement funds to make great beer.
That one small incubator of beer seems to produce more ideas for the betterment of Van Nuys than any political slogan coming out of City Hall.
Throw out all the great plans for Van Nuys.
Start small, dream big, pursue your own venture. Maybe that is the key to change.
Back when Los Angeles was younger, at the dawn of the automobile age after World War I, tires, gasoline and cars were sold in buildings and displayed in a manner befitting a jewelry store.
Among the rich archives of the USC Digital Library, are photographs of local businesses, who put extraordinary artistry into their signage and architecture to draw in customers, while projecting an image of modernity attractive to the growing city.
Many of these photos come from the Dick Whittington Studio.